This article explores the philosophical framework and historical perspective of multiage education, common characteristics of multiage classrooms, and advantages and disadvantages of non-graded programs. Multiage classrooms ignore age distinctions and group children of varying developmental levels together, primarily in the elementary years. Researchers point to the social and emotional benefits of multiage classrooms asserting that such educational environments boost self-esteem and confidence through positive interactions between peers of varying age levels. While literature does not clearly identify specific academic benefits, supporters discuss various indicators that point toward increased academic achievement as a result of multiage pairings. Regardless of documented benefits, some educators hold strong that multiage classrooms require too much preparation and monitoring, confuse parents, and often do not match well with school based organizational schedules. This article provides a comprehensive overview of multiage education and highlights the dramatic increase of non-graded classrooms throughout the 1990's and the eventual decline in such classrooms in the early 21st century.
Keywords Common Interest Group; Differentiated Instruction; Dyads; Learning Center; Learning Style Group; Multiage Classrooms; Needs-Requirement Group; Problem Based Group; Reinforcement Group; Shared Task Group; Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
Traditional graded classrooms group students according to age criteria and apply specific grade level distinctions (1st grade, 2nd grade, etc.) throughout a child's education from Kindergarten through Grade 12. Multiage classrooms ignore age distinctions and group children of varying developmental levels together, primarily in the elementary years. Gaustad (1992) defines multiage education as the practice of teaching children of different ages and ability levels without dividing them into grade specific classrooms based on age. Multiage classrooms are often referred to as non-graded classrooms due to the lack of grade level distinction.
Multiage classrooms date back all the way to the one-room schoolhouse. Aina (2001) discusses the unique characteristics of the one-room schoolhouse that still hold true today in non-graded classrooms. Children remained with one teacher and the same classmates for many years throughout their education, creating a safe, stable and consistent environment for learning. The mix of different ages, ability and developmental levels provided many opportunities for increased social interaction, positive self-esteem development and enhanced responsibility. Children in one-room schoolhouses had no perceived ceiling with regard to what could be taught and what they could learn (Aina, 2001). All of these characteristics are true of today's multiage classrooms.
Multiage classrooms include a wide variety of backgrounds, abilities, ages, cultures, learning styles, and interests. The age range typically spans three or more years, thus creating an optimal learning situation for students of various developmental levels. Students in a non-graded classroom typically remain with the same teachers and students for many years as they progress at their own pace (Hoffman, 2003).
Team teaching is a common practice, and teachers employ many instructional methodologies to effectively reach all students in the classroom. Cooperative learning techniques are used extensively, as the emphasis is on student-centered learning as opposed to teacher directed instruction. With the realization that people learn in many different ways, differentiated instructional methodologies are used to meet the varying readiness levels, learning styles and interests in the classroom.
Often, people confuse multigrade and multiage classrooms. Both terms apply to classroom environments with more than one age level of students. However, the key difference is that multigrade classrooms continue to instruct students according to grade level distinctions, whereas multiage classrooms group students heterogeneously according to developmental and ability levels, interests, and learning styles without reference to age. It is common in multiage classrooms for students of different ages to work together on a cooperative task. Hoffman (2003) asserts that the difference between multigrade and multiage classrooms is often blurred in research and literature, thus making it sometimes difficult to separate studies concerning pure, authentic multiage environments from those referencing multigrade classrooms.
Horace Mann introduced graded classrooms in the early 1900's as a way to provide an education for the vastly increased population of the United States due to the flood of immigrants into schools (Aina, 2001). Thus the one room schoolhouse waned in popularity in most areas of the country, excluding rural areas. In the 1950's, multiage classrooms gained momentum, again due to an increase in population as the baby boom generation grew to school age (Viadero, 1996). In both cases, the sheer numbers of students drove schools to reconsider class configurations in order to provide an education for all school aged children. It was not until the 1980's that people began to think of multiage classrooms from an educational perspective considering the benefits of teaching and learning in a non-graded setting (Viadero, 1996).
During the early 1990's the movement was in full force, especially in primary grades, and involved a large number of supporters. Perhaps the biggest boost to the movement came in 1990, when the Kentucky Education Reform Act mandated that every school in the state provide a non-graded primary program. Kentucky fully embraced the multiage philosophy and required that all children be provided the opportunity to work from Kindergarten through 3rd grade at their own pace (Pardini, 2005). Interestingly, the biggest blow to the movement also came from Kentucky in 1998 when the state relaxed the non-graded primary mandate in response to teachers and administrators who yearned for more flexibility with regard to grouping children and development of curriculum objectives (Pardini, 2005). Recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has further driven the movement off course as teachers and administrators are being held accountable for student mastery of grade-specific standards. By the year 2005, multiage classrooms had found it increasingly more difficult to meet the rigid standards required by the legislation (Pardini, 2005). In 2012, the administration of President Barack Obama distributed waivers to the act, which exempted states from certain aspects of the educational standards (Klein, 2013).
Characteristics of a Multiage Classroom
Robert Anderson (1993) discusses specific criteria that multi-age classrooms must meet or come close to meeting in order to be considered authentic multi-age experiences. First and foremost, he indicates that such classrooms must be void of specific grade level distinctions. Classrooms must be created with at least two heterogeneous groups of students of different ages to create opportunities for flexible grouping and collaborative learning opportunities. When assessing students, teachers need to replace traditional grading and assessment tools with methodologies that truly reflect student performance and growth without comparison to other students. Curriculum must be interdisciplinary in nature and teachers must have the freedom to be as flexible as necessary with curriculum objectives to ensure that all children succeed. Finally, Anderson asserts that schools need policies consistent with the multi-age philosophy and must stick to them to ensure success.
Hoffman (2003) further articulates common beliefs held by multiage classroom teachers. He asserts that teachers need to know their students well in order to adapt their lessons to meet a wide range of learning abilities and styles. Moreover, teachers need to employ flexible groups as often as possible while taking on the role of facilitator of learning, as opposed to director. Teachers must also take student interest into account while building opportunities for student choice. Most important, multiage classroom teachers must create the conditions necessary for students to appreciate and celebrate the diversity of learners (Hoffman, 2003).
One of the key hallmarks of a multi-age classroom is the fact that deep relationships are formed between students, teachers and parents. Hoffman (2003) indicates that students in a multi-age classroom celebrate differences and appreciate one another for their unique personal characteristics and qualities. In graded classrooms, students from cross grade levels usually attach a specific grade level identity to individual students and may not socialize or engage in learning opportunities with others simply because of this grade level distinction.
Because multi-age classrooms highly value interpersonal relationships and include a wide variety of learners with different developmental levels, ability levels, interests, and cultural and family backgrounds, they create ideal conditions for capitalizing on collaborative learning opportunities. Additionally, because the range of ages in a multiage classroom generally spans three years, teachers cannot rely heavily on whole group instruction. Much of the daily routine, therefore, is designed to take maximum advantage of cooperative and peer based learning activities. Teachers use a variety of grouping practices ranging from individual and partner work to small and large group discussions. Such flexible grouping strategies allow teachers to effectively meet the needs of students in a multiage classroom (Chapman, 1995).
Hoffman (2002) highlights three of the most common group configurations in a multiage classroom including interest groups, shared task groups and dyads. Students form their own groups when participating in common interest activities which usually take the form of learning centers. Kaplan et al. (1980) defines a learning center as an area in the classroom containing a variety of activities or materials developed specifically to teach, reinforce, or extend a skill or concept. Common interest groups allow students to investigate and explore their own interests with other students within the structure of an already designed center and are often organized to encourage meaningful connections between content areas (Hoffman, 2002).
Another common grouping practice involves student-led shared task groups. Small heterogeneous groups...